The time has come that we set our work straight in language. The People’s Republic of China is a totalitarian state. Of its own kind, to be sure, hence neo-totalitarian, but totalitarian it is. No clarity of analysis is possible without clarity of language. The PRC is not “an authoritarian system,” it is “a totalitarian state.”
The final straw has been the imposition of outright tyranny in Xinjiang, with extremes of surveillance, heavily intrusive thought-work, and mass detentions in “re-education” facilities. But also the relentless tightening of dictatorship during Xi Jinping’s reign, culminating in the decimation of the community of human rights lawyers that has stood as a bastion of courage and civility.
The characteristics of totalitarianism are
- that rule is upheld by terror
- that rule reaches into the regulation of natural human bonds in private spheres
- that rule is exercised through an extensive and impersonal bureaucracy
- that the state operates under the authority of a commanding ideology.
The proof of terror is now in Xinjiang. Where the regime sees it to be necessary, its footprint is tyranny. The state is deep into the regulation of private lives, now intensified in the “social credit system” by which rewards and punishments are distributed in the population according to patterns of private behaviour. There has never been bureaucracy like the PRC bureaucracies. Xi has cast off pragmatism and clad his reign in the omnipresent China Dream ideology of nationalism and chauvinism.
The result of totalitarian patterns of state rule is that social life is atomised and community crushed. Many Chinese can now live their daily lives much as they want, and in comfort. But there is no freedom of assembly, association, information or deliberation.
I know that there is honest reluctance in our own community to adopting the language of totalitarianism. There has been hope and expectation of opening up. But in political life and civil society it is not happening. Far from it, the direction of travel is to shutting down. We should now recognise this in the language we use.
Stein Ringen, Professor of Political Economy, King’s College London